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The Sisyphean Solitude of a Migrant Shepherd

Nov 18, 2019 | 831 videos
Video by Carly and Jared Jakins

Some films don’t need words. El Desierto is one of them. Carly and Jared Jakins’s award-winning short documentary, premiering on The Atlantic today, follows a lone migrant worker as he shepherds thousands of sheep in the Great Basin desert amid a formidable drought. Without a single line of dialogue, the film’s imagery speaks volumes about the isolating plight of America’s migrant workers and the looming specter of climate change.

The co-directors, who are married, grew up in the Great Basin, an arid expanse of nearly 190,000 square miles in the western United States. Despite the fact that they were both raised in a wool-growing community, it wasn’t until adulthood that they became aware of the crucial role migrant workers play in the sheep-farming industry. The couple visited the region’s remote mountaintops to learn more.

“It was so strange—we felt like we were in another country, seeing Latino herders every dozen miles, only speaking Spanish, when in the valley below it is a very white, conservative, Scandinavian-settled area,” Carly told me. “We soon learned these migrant workers were the lifeblood of the wool-growing industry.”

The couple were awestruck by the skills of the herders, who are tasked with moving their flocks through the basin’s rugged terrain each year, from November to April. Like Francisco Llerena, the man featured in El Desierto, most agricultural migrant workers have an H-2A visa, which enables them to work in the U.S. for three years. “Usually, their boss will pay for travel and housing, but if a herder wants to go home before the end of his three-year contract, he must pay for that travel out of pocket,” Jared told me.

For 11 days, the filmmakers tracked Llerena, his flock, and his beloved sheepdogs as they navigated the mountains and high desert. Their simple approach lends the film a lyrical and intimate quality.

“Francisco has a lot of pride in his work, and he was happy to have us come along,” Carly said. “We focused on the cyclical nature of Francisco’s tasks—the daily repetition and utter solitude. We hope that it evokes reflection on the Sisyphean experience of migrant workers in the United States.”

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Author: Emily Buder

About This Series

A showcase of cinematic short documentary films, curated by The Atlantic.